Sipping on Steampunk Coffee During the Apocalypse with Jenny Lewis and the Seven Dwarfs of Silver Lake
A short story based on a California legend...
The following is the first part of a three-part impressionistic fantasy based on the myth of singer-songwriter Jenny Lewis. It is inspired by interviews, song lyrics, writings, photos, German folklore, Silver Lake, and the cinema of David Lynch.
Van Nuys, 1986
They’ve pledged their allegiance by the time a decaying skeleton in a jumpsuit rolls out the TV set. “Arnie was kind enough to bring us a TV today, class, so please thank him,” says Mr. Palmer, who stands in front his fifth grade classroom, adjusting his glasses and sipping on a milky cup of coffee that has the fragrance of rotting chocolate cake. “Thank you, Arnie,” the fifth graders harmonize together in a predictably mocking tone. Mr. Palmer pivotes to the side to allow the squeaky cabinet to be positioned in front of the blackboard. He relishes his coffee out a patriotic mug painted with stars and stripes. He’s a man in his mid-thirties who smells like Folgers coffee and sandalwood-infused aftershave. “Can we watch Pee-wee?!?” says a young girl in the front row with black pigtails and Windex blue eyes. Mr. Palmer shakes his head and attaches an unnecessary amount of disgust to the young girl’s request. “Unfortunately, class, we’ll be pausing our reading of The Island of Blue Dolphins today.” The announcement sends a current of joy through the children. “But we are not going to be watching Pee-wee. We, along with the rest of the nation, will be watching the news today.”
“The news sucks a big fat weenie!” yells a boy who quickly slips behind a school desk, giggling into his backpack. The mere mention of “weenie” causes the room full of fifth graders to burst out into mass convulsions. “Who said that?” says Mr. Palmer, who, for once, doesn’t threaten the class with detention or afterschool trash pickup. “Not today, please…” Mr. Palmer pauses for a moment, sips his coffee, and continues. “I’m sorry to report that something very terrible has happened to the space shuttle Challenger.” The volume of the classroom is muted. A 10-year-old redhead named Jennifer Diane Lewis, wearing a tropical blue shirt with denim overalls, is a blooming actress who just filmed an anti-drug PSA with Danny Pintauro, the boy from Who's the Boss? The two TV stars sit in the front row as Mr. Palmer uses a remote control to find CNN. “There we are,” he says.
“At around 11:39 a.m., the space shuttle Challenger,” says a very plain-looking man on CNN, “carried a confirmed seven astronauts as its crew, and, as we’re being told by representatives at NASA, quote, ‘disintegrated’ over the Atlantic Ocean near Cape Canaveral. It is an unspeakable tragedy.” The classroom is dark. The heavy drapes have been pulled over the tall factory windows. Jennifer watches the static eyeballs of her classmates flicker with the images of streaming white smoke and bursting orange fireballs. “How could they let this happen?” Mr. Palmer says to himself. “But this kind of thing never happens at NASA, it’s really impossible, Mr. Palmer,” says Jennifer, who has an unusually mature diction for a 10-year-old. Mr. Palmer is hypnotized by the CNN broadcast, which reports that one of the seven astronauts was a teacher from New Hampshire. “Christa McAuliffe!” says Jennifer, who quickly snaps her head towards Danny Pintauro, who looks utterly bored. “My mom told me about her,” she says as she turns back towards the fiery glow of the TV. “How unbelievably shocking,” she says.
“Danny? Are you even watching this?”
Jennifer begins to bounce her leg and chew on the dull skin around her fingernails. She looks unusually anxious for someone known for being the “tough cookie” in afterschool specials and TV sitcoms. Danny looks over to Jennifer and says something peculiar for a 10-year-old in almost any circumstance but especially this one:
“Everybody dies, Jenny.”
Jenny Lewis never forgot the day the space shuttle Challenger exploded over the Atlantic Ocean.
Laurel Canyon, 2006
The radio in the kitchen plays a distorted classic rock riff. The lime green succulents in her garden are covered in an ashy layer of brownish pollution. Her tiny spider-plants tremble inside their elixir jars. The piercing fragrance of burnt eucalyptus pokes the tip of her freckled nose; she manically rubs it away as if it were a residue from last night. She can smell the fire. He eyes are irritated by the smoke; it’s feeding on the Hollywood Hills near her cottage in Laurel Canyon. The winding roads are covered in the skeletal remains of mountain coyotes and palm trees. The whole city smells like the crematorium at Forest Lawn.
Jenny Lewis swings her arm across the bed to grab her iPhone off a glass dresser. She unfurls one eyelid and notices her reflection bending between the cracks on the screen. There’s a wilted jasmine flower tangled between her hair. Her eyelids look like heavy drapes designed to shield delicate jewels from the sun. I hate myself in the morning, she tells herself knowing it is exactly how she’s felt every morning since the fifth grade. Her text message notifications are set to the sound of church bells. “Do you like Drake?” appears in gray box from someone she hasn’t saved in her phone yet. “818?” she says before replying: “Doesn’t everyone?!?” Another text, this time a link from her publicist, Duncan Alford: “How Jenny Lewis Became the Queen of Indie Rock.” She replies, “cool, thanks,” and gently tosses the iPhone in the direction of the vintage slipper chair.
Jenny Lewis sleeps on a Japanese-style platform bed that’s been lifted precisely two feet off the ground. It has a walnut veneer with a headboard that’s been hand-carved with images of ancient chestnut trees, talking mushrooms, and billowing clouds, like the medieval-style doors pulled from the imagination of Tolkien. A rosewood Taylor guitar covered in reflective stars sits against her bed frame. She swipes the strands of ginger hair away from her half-opened eyes and yawns, as she notices a colorful glass pipe dangling off the edge of the slipper chair. The curved handle of the pipe is shaped like a pinkish squid that forms into a deformed blue eyeball. The origins of the pipe confound her. She pulls the white cotton sheets off her body and discovers a red stain between her legs. She’s wearing a baggy Death Row Records T-shirt that hangs right above her knees. “Blood?” She quickly realizes it’s just a few drops of Gamay wine. I’m into murder but not murdering, she thinks to herself, which she’ll later save as a voice note.
Jenny Lewis slowly drags her sapped body across her bed and dangles her head over the comforter. She’s hanging upside down and looking for her favorite wool socks. Her hair collapses over her face as the blood floods the corners of her eyes. Her skull feels like a volcano that’s about to gush through her nostrils. Her hanging hair is so heavy it feels like it is ripping the skin off her scalp. Where the fuck are those socks? She looks across her mid-tone wood floors; there’s the torn remnants of white fishnet stockings; a half-empty can of Modelo beer; a chipped The Big Lebowski disc, and a crystalized marijuana nug that glitters against the sunbeams spilling in through her windows. She whispers something to the frosty green nug, “Can you please find my socks?” She’s beginning to get dizzy hanging in this position. Jenny Lewis sits back up and shakes the scattered dots away from her eyes. She hunches forward and rests her elbows on her thighs and takes a deep breath. I feel like death. She recalls something she recently saved as a voice note:
It seems her wool socks have been sacrificed to the black hole under her Japanese bed. Jenny Lewis stands up, quickly slips into a black Adidas tracksuit, and a pair of kid-sized Bugs Bunny slippers. She wiggles her toes and begins to bend down to stretch the back of her legs. She can hear the Eagles’ “Peaceful Easy Feeling” echoing out of her kitchen. She stashes the glass pipe into her pocket. She bends down to pick up a “Miller High Life” trucker hat she got during a stop in Milwaukee. She can smell the pungent odor of marijuana and stale beer tickle her nostrils. It blends with the aroma of burning eucalyptus trees. She breathes in the aroma like a perfumist attempting to ascertain what California smells like. The Eagles, for the moment, is what it sounds like.
What if the Coen brothers actually like the Eagles? she thinks to herself, as she walks towards her kitchen to grind a few scoops of aromatic Peruvian blend.
For the first time in nearly a decade, Jenny Lewis is out of coffee. Tonight, at about 10 p.m., she’ll play a set at the Satellite in Silver Lake, in front of 200 locals who’ve edited their identities around the most mundane aspects of her life—including her Lynchian obsession with finely brewed coffee. All Jenny Lewis wants right now, as the mountains burn and black holes swallow her wool socks, is a perfectly crafted cup of coffee.
She’s agreed to be interviewed by Pitchfork on the condition that they drink steampunk coffee with her, which is only brewed at one location in Los Angeles: Lamill in Silver Lake. One cup of steampunk coffee costs about what it costs to buy a dub sack of weed in California ($20 bucks). The steampunk at Lamill is leisurely brewed through an award-winning Alpha Dominche machine that looks like an antique laboratory. The Alpha Dominche consists of two different glass tubes attached to stainless steel pipes that are wrapped with cylinder bands of gold. The base is made of brass and steel. There’s no electronic display or timer. It looks steampunk. Only seven coffee sommeliers in Los Angeles are trained in the brewing technique that produces a flawless cup of steampunk. They all work at Lamill, which is where Jenny Lewis gets her coffee. The steampunk brewers are known locally as the seven dwarfs of Silver Lake. They know, for example, that if steampunk coffee is brewed incorrectly, it can lead to a gastrointestinal combustion that produces what can only be described as internal damnation. The Alpha Dominche machine requires months of rigorous training.
Two hours before tonight’s show, Jenny Lewis will be meeting a writer from Pitchfork at Lamill, the dimly-lit bohemian cafe known for its award-winning steampunk coffee and freshly baked chocolate rugelach. Lamill customizes their playlist in anticipation of Jenny Lewis’s arrival. One of the sommeliers makes sure her Rilo Kiley tattoo is visible; another wears a faded Jenny Lewis T-shirt they found at a thrift store in Topanga Canyon, decides it’s too obvious, and instead wears a Sebadoh pin that’s slightly more esoteric.
The aura of Jenny Lewis in Silver Lake is that of Elvis Presley in Memphis; Joni Mitchell in Laurel Canyon, and Carly Simon anywhere clouds form inside coffee cups. As far as the seven dwarfs of Silver Lake are concerned, Jenny Lewis is their Snow White.
The manager of Lamill is a manically depressed music publicist who reps local folk bands. His name is Win Nagata; he’s one of the seven dwarfs. He used to live next door to Elliott Smith on Lemoyne street. Win usually saves Jenny Lewis a table next to a glass wall that faces Silver Lake Blvd, which is paved underneath the Santa Monica Mountains—which are partially engulfed in flames. “It’s very Parisian,” she once told him. The chairs inside Lamill are vintage teal-colored swivels from a roadside diner that exists only in the decaying memories of blacklisted screenwriters. When Jenny Lewis walks into Lamill to order a cup of steampunk coffee, however, with a Pitchfork writer eagerly awaiting her arrival, for that brief moment, to be a coffee brewer in Silver Lake is to occupy the same illuminated cloud as the American Apparel model with a guest spot on Girls; the celibate vegan chef who jams with Father John Misty, and Jenny Lewis herself: a paragon of indie-rock who just wants a goddamn cup of smoldering, earth-shattering steampunk coffee from one of the seven dwarfs of Silver Lake.
To be continued. . .